Why Is NBA Player Jason Collins Coming Out Such a Big Deal?

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“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

With these three short sentences, Jason Collins became the first active male player in any of the big four of American sports —baseball, hockey, basketball, and football—to come out.

Collins, a 12-year veteran of the NBA who most recently played for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, wrote about coming to terms with his sexual orientation in this week's Sports Illustrated bombshell cover story.

Jason Collins, the NBA's first openly gay player, via Zumapress

You may not have heard of Jason Collins before. Even dedicated basketball fans sometimes confuse him with his twin brother, Jarron, who is also a NBA player. But in Los Angeles, especially the San Fernando Valley where I live, the Collins brothers are legendary. They both attended Chatsworth’s Sierra Canyon, Montclair Prep in Van Nuys and made Harvard-Westlake a basketball powerhouse during the ’90s. Members of the H-W class of '97, the twins were star players on a Wolverine basketball squad, dubbed “The Best Team Ever,” that was undefeated and won two state championships. The brothers were well-known around campus, not surprising given the school's tight community and their immense success on the basketball court. Their framed pictures hang outside the school gym, in a Hall of Fame gallery of student-athletes who have gone on to athletic success, and they went on to play for Stanford before being drafted by the pros. 

That an active professional athlete in a major sport came out was bound to happen sooner or later. But the fact that Jason graduated from the same high school my daughters attend, a school that proudly supports him today, makes the revelation a bit more personal.  In fact I first heard the news not via Sports Illustrated or any of the major sports networks, but by a status update posted on the school's offical Facebook page lauding his decision to come out. I'd expect nothing less of an institution committed to teaching kids how to think for themselves. The school has a legacy of producing leaders  and Collins will be a role model for many students who follow in his footsteps. Since graduation, he has continued to coach at the school's summer basketball camps and I don't expect that to change. That there are homosexual athletes playing professional sports will eventually be something commonplace but in the meantime, H-W students and  families can look on with pride that one of their own led the way.

Harvard-Westlake Basketball Coach Greg Hilliard, who coached the Collins brothers while they played on the nation’s top-ranked high school team, remembers Jason as a player who “dominated high school”

“Sexual orientation was never an issue to any of us,” Hillard said. “I’m just proud that he at this point decided it’s the right time to talk about it.”

According to the SI article, Collins, who was engaged to a woman for a short time, came out to a few relatives over the years but only revealed his sexuality to his twin last year. Despite a lifetime spent in each other’s shadows on and off the basketball court, Jarron (who is eight minutes younger) was “downright astounded”by the revelation.  But Jason adds, “by dinner that night, he was full of brotherly love. For the first time in our lives, he wanted to step in and protect me.”

For Collins, hiding his sexual orientation became “almost unbearable” when the Supreme Court began considering the case that would decide the future of gay marriage last month. The player said he waited until the end of the NBA season out of “loyalty” to his team to prevent his personal life from becoming a distraction.

“Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future,” Collins writes. “Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.”

Interestingly, during his seasons with the Celtics and Wizards, Collins wore jersey number 98, as a “statement” referring to a hate crime committed in 1998 against gay college student Matthew Shepard who was tortured to death near Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard’s horrific death brought national attention to the state of gay rights and spurred federal hate crime legislation.

“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” Collins said. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

Collins is a free agent this summer and hopes to get picked up by another team next season. If he does continue to play, he will probably be the only openly gay player in the NBA. But, as he notes at the end of the piece, he will surely not be the only gay player. Collins  found the courage, after living in the shadows of his truth, to set an historic standard and, for the most part, his peers are supportive..

After release of the story, the league offered statements on its official Twitter account: “We have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family. Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.” The series of tweets ends with the hashtag #NBAFamily

In women's sports, the attitude is completely different. A couple weeks ago Brittney Griner, the #1 WNBA draft pick, came out and few people seemed to care. Of course there is a much longer record of high-profile female athletes being gay and, in a way, the lack of publicity surrounding Griner's announcement was refreshing.

One week after the draft, Griner signed a "big time" deal with Nike, a company that  does not shy away from promoting gay athletes. AdWeek noted that Nike is Collins' only known sponsor, and that they expect the company to launch a new TV campaign built around him: "The attitude needs to be, 'This is actually not that big of deal. Its time has come. There will be more gay athletes coming out. It's just the beginning.'"

The fact is that the 6'8" Griner, who may be the best woman to ever play basketball, is more interesting because she can dunk than because she is a lesbian. But just because she didn’t send shockwaves through the sports world by confirming her sexuality publically—her story is no less one of courage and pride. If Collins is a hero, then so is Brittney Griner and all the other athletes before her.

In a world where athletes are constantly pushing boundaries, both Collins’ and Griner's announcements are indicative of how sports can break down barriers. These two athletes are real game-changers.

 

@jschonb
dare to dream
Also online at prettytough.com and womentalksports.com

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